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Photo courtesy of Steamboat Chamber / Shannon Lukens

When and Where to Peep Colorado’s Leaves This Season

The unexpected winter weather may dampen our autumn colors this year, but if you're willing to drive, there's still plenty of leaf peeping (and adventuring) to be done.

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Autumn in Colorado is a magical time. The first hint of winter appears with cooling temperatures and the fall foliage creates a multicolored display of red, gold, and orange. But for all the people who are hoping Colorado’s fall season will gild what is the extremely ugly lily of 2020…well, let’s keep crossing our fingers.

With extreme drought in many areas of the state, forest fires in other parts, and now on the heels of a 40-degree temperature drop just weeks before the start of the season’s spectacle, it seems as if the gold we’re looking for might be closer to iron pyrite than 24 carats. The cold snap can create brown spots on leaves or, in some cases, cause the leaves to turn brown entirely and fall from the tree, which means that the state’s most magical season might be less than spectacular—or even worse, nearly nonexistent.

“It’s a possibility that some of the cold that we’re getting in the northern parts of Colorado, and even into the central part of Colorado, can have a significant effect on the fall colors,” says Dan West, forest entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service. “I anticipate that much of our fall colors are going to be impacted by the storm.”

But perhaps all is not lost: The freezing temperatures didn’t hit the entire state.

“We still might get a decent show in some locations,” West says. “I just think it’s going to be a little bit more of a drive. And I think it’s going to be spottier for areas. We’ll wait and see what happens in the central and southern part of Colorado.”

Prior to the cold snap, West told 5280 that there’s a five-week window to catch the leaves changing across the state. The colors tend to move in bands from north to south, with temperatures, elevation, and other factors playing a part. He predicted that northern Colorado will peak in the third week in September, with central Colorado seeing the colors at the end of the month, and southern Colorado looking vibrant in the first two weeks of October.

While we don’t yet know what the foliage will look like this year, you can (and should) seek out some cool-weather adventures in the coming weeks. Sure, there are some classic leaf-peeping spots that just beg to be enjoyed from the comfort of your car—like Kebler Pass, Independence Pass, and the aptly named Million Dollar Highway. However, with all of the sitting inside we did earlier this year, perhaps it’s time to try a different way of enjoying the changing seasons.

Northern Colorado

Strawberry Park Hot Springs
Instead of driving a rough 4WD road, you can hike to beautiful Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Photo by Terri Cook

Steamboat will likely be one of the first locations to see the leaves change, and there are several unique ways to experience the evolving colors. Buffalo Pass, a rough dirt road that leads to Summit Lake, is an adventurous trip on a four-wheeler (though a burly AWD can make it, too). Flash of Gold trail, also located on Buffalo Pass, was named for the aspen groves that limn the trail in gold. This 11.3-mile intermediate, multidirectional trail is both hikeable and bikeable.

Or, take to the sky: Zephyr Helicopter Company offer a bird’s eye view of the historic town of Steamboat Springs and the ski area, allowing an elevated leaf-peeping experience. The scenic tour soars over popular sightseeing options, including Fish Creek Canyon and Falls, Rabbit Ears Peak, the Never Summer Mountains, and the Gore Range

But it’s not really a trip to Steamboat unless you’ve steeped in the famous hot springs. Combine two great experiences by trekking the Hot Springs Trail, a moderate hike through aspen groves that ends at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Be sure to make a reservation and you can soak in the pools after soaking up your fill of fall colors.

If urban peeping is more your jam, Fort Collins is an early-season gem. Meander (on bike or foot) down the Poudre River Trail, where huge cottonwood, elm, boxelders, alders, and other native trees and plants stand sentinel in their autumnal finest.

Central Colorado

Photo by Victoria Carodine

In Aspen, Maroon Bells is a perennial favorite that’s usually heaving with visitors. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, this might be the year to get your golden fix at this iconic spot. Reservations are required to ride the bus or drive a car to the beautiful site, but bikes are welcome at any time. Rent an e-bike from Four Mountain Sports at the base of the Highlands, and you can ride up and back at your leisure and still have the stamina to continue exploring.

Along the Continental Divide, Marshall Pass is a popular place for mountain biking but also provides a backcountry route between Salida and Gunnison; you can drive, but two wheels is an excellent option for immersing yourself in the many aspen groves along the way.

If you’d prefer a bit of character with your color, a scenic train ride might be just your speed. The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad travels north along the Arkansas River Valley, climbing to an elevation 1,000 feet above the valley floor. This affords spectacular views of Freemont Pass and the two tallest peaks in Colorado—Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert—along with fantastic displays of golden aspen trees.

Southern Colorado

Courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The southern part of the state is usually the last place to see the leaves, but there are plenty of opportunities to catch the show. Consider a hot air balloon ride over Durango or Pagosa Springs (check out Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures)—it provides a peaceful perspective and incredible views.

Or if you’d rather stick closer to the ground, take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. While the usual route between Durango and Silverton isn’t running this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, you can still ride the historic coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives on a shortened, two-hour course, from Rockwood Station (about 18 miles north of Durango) to Cascade Canyon and back. The train runs through portions of the San Juan National Forest that are not accessible by car, so even if the colors are less than brilliant, you’re still likely to have an experience unlike any other.

Finding Colorado’s spectacular fall colors is always an adventure—and even more so this year—but getting out and exploring, by whatever mode of transport you choose, is always a good idea. “I always tell people if they’re looking for the perfect spot, keep driving for just a few more minutes and you’ll probably run across something that’s totally different than what you just left,” West says.

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